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After crash kills 5, Quebec Cree mourn and call for safer patient travel

The victims were between the ages of 47 to 69, according to the Sûreté du Québec.  (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada - image credit)
The victims were between the ages of 47 to 69, according to the Sûreté du Québec. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada - image credit)

The Cree community of Waswanipi is mourning as provincial police continue to investigate Thursday's head-on collision between a pickup truck and a van transporting medical patients that left five people dead in Chapais, Que.

The municipality is located about 700 kilometres north of Montreal.

A 45-year-old man from Chapais was driving the pick-up truck heading toward Chibougamau before hitting the van, according to the Sûreté du Québec (SQ).

Police say the people in the van included three men, aged 47, 63 and 69, as well as a 60-year-old woman.

"A pickup truck veered out of its lane and collided head-on with a van coming in the opposite direction. Everyone was transported to the hospital," said SQ spokesperson Hugues Beaulieu.

Bertie Wapachee, chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), says the victims were on their way home to Waswanipi, returning from the Chibougamau-Chapais Airport after flying to Montreal to receive health-care services.

Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh described the victims as pillars of their community.

According to the chief, the victims are Abraham Ottereyes, who was the person behind the wheel and medical patient transport driver, Allan Etapp, a pastor, Cecile Gull Happyjack, a local teacher, and her husband Charlie Gull, who was a carpenter.

The identity of the fifth victim is not known.

4 days of mourning

On Friday morning, Waswanipi Chief Irene Neeposh declared four days of mourning, one for each of the community members lost.

"The community is in a state of shock. We're still trying to understand what happened," said Neeposh, adding that support services will be made available.

Waswanipi is located halfway between Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Chibougamau and has a population of around 1,800 residents.

The Grand Council of the Crees said this morning that it will lower its flags at half-mast in solidarity with the people of Waswanipi.

"The Cree Nation Government extends its deepest condolences to all who are affected by this tragic loss," it said in a statement.

In 2021, the lack of cellular service in northern Que. was heavily criticised by local officials after Caleb Brien, a Waswanipi resident was hit by a car and killed along highway113, in an area without cell service.
In 2021, the lack of cellular service in northern Que. was heavily criticised by local officials after Caleb Brien, a Waswanipi resident was hit by a car and killed along highway113, in an area without cell service.

Bertie Wapachee, chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, says Route 113 puts travelling health-care patients at risk. (Radio-Canada/Jean-Michel Cotnoir)

Road conditions & health-care access 

While mourning, some Cree leaders are also taking the moment to call for changes to health-care access in the region.

"I definitely would like to see more services brought up north, so that we can facilitate the process of providing the medical care needed for the residents by the north," said Neeposh.

Many people who live there travel outside their community to receive dialysis treatment and Wapachee says plans to build a dialysis unit in a Waswanipi clinic are in progress and construction is expected to begin soon.

He says one of the victims in Thursday's fatal crash was a dialysis patient.

The 120-kilometre journey from the airport to the community on Route 113 can be dangerous, according to Wapachee.

"If the roads aren't good, not maintained, it adds more risk to our patients," he said, adding that the roads were snowy, slushy and possibly icy on the day of the accident.

"It's a risky place to be on dialysis," he said.

Wapachee describes the 113 as "probably one of the worst highways in the province" and is calling on Quebec's Transport Ministry to upgrade the highway to improve safety for patients.

On X, formerly known as Twitter, Quebec's Health Minister Christian Dubé said "teams are mobilized for psychosocial support."

On Facebook, Quebec Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière said he was in contact with Chief Neeposh.